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The Arthropologist

Butterfly Amy Fote: The Houston ballerina's Madame Butterfly swan song

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Houston Ballet, Madame Butterfly, Amy Fote, Jessica Collado
Houston Ballet artists Amy Fote and Jessica Collado in Madame Butterfly Photo by Amitava Sarkar
Houston Ballet, Madame Butterfly, Amy Fote, James Gotesky
Amy Fote and James Gotesky in the Houston Ballet's production of Madame Butterfly, choreographed by Stanton Welch Photo by Amitava Sarkar
Nancy, Butterfly Amy, July 2012, Amy Fote
Amy Fote in Madame Butterfly choreographed by Stanton Welch Photo by Maarten Holl
Nancy, Butterfly Amy, July 2012, Amy Fote
Amy Fote in Madame Butterfly choreographed by Stanton Welch Photo by Maarten Holl
Nancy, Butterfly Amy, July 2012, Amy Fote
A scene from Madame Butterfly featuring artist Amy Forte Photo by Amitava Sarkar
Houston Ballet, Madame Butterfly, Amy Fote, Jessica Collado
Houston Ballet, Madame Butterfly, Amy Fote, James Gotesky
Nancy, Butterfly Amy, July 2012, Amy Fote
Nancy, Butterfly Amy, July 2012, Amy Fote
Nancy, Butterfly Amy, July 2012, Amy Fote
Nancy Wozny, head shot, September 2012

A butterfly flapped its wings and — you know the story — something big happened in Texas.

The result was butterfly Amy, as in Houston Ballet's renowned principal dancer Amy Fote. The 2012-2013 season opens with Stanton Welch's tragic Madame Butterfly, which premiered Thursday night and runs through Sept. 16, featuring Fote returning to the very role that brought her here.

Let me explain.

In 2004, Fote was performing Madame Butterfly at the Royal New Zealand Ballet when ballet master Steven Woodgate discovered her talents and quickly passed the info on to Welch. A year later, Fote left her position as a principal at Milwaukee Ballet, loaded up her Audi and headed to Houston to take up her position as a first soloist. Known for her flawless technique and emotional interpretations, Fote was promoted to principal in 2006. She became an audience favorite and one of mine as well.  

 Known for her flawless technique and emotional interpretations, Fote was promoted to principal in 2006. 

"It was a whirlwind," Fote recalls of her first few weeks in Houston. 

Butterflies are not forever, and Fote's run in Houston Ballet is not either: This Madame Butterfly will be her last. Although one of Houston's best-loved ballerinas spins her last pirouette and takes her final bow this December in The Nutcracker, Fote considers the entire fall season her swan song.

But the ballerina is not disappearing without the appropriate fanfare, as the Jubilee of Dance on Nov. 30 will serve as a tribute to her impressive career.

I met Fote before she even unpacked that Audi, when she had already been cast as Titiana in Onegin. We chatted about her hometown of Milwaukee, decorating, cooking and, of course, becoming Titiana. When she later sent me a recipe (which turned out to be way over my skill level), I was touched and reminded that, underneath her prima ballerina veneer, there was a real person quite tied to the world around her. Turns out, all of that shows up in her dancing.

"I'm ready to take the next step," Fote tells CultureMap. What exactly that next step is has yet to be determined. Right now, she's focused on flapping those great butterfly wings one more time. 

The last dance

Welch's signature story ballet is famous for its breathtaking pas de deux, which is full of go-for-broke partnering, and Fote excels in the airspace, never dropping character as she flies about the stage or leaps into her lover's arms. It's a dream role for a ballerina exactly because of its mix of pyrotechnics and emotion. Fote is ready to bring it on.

"Butterfly is so close to my heart. I don't want to anticipate it, but let it happen," she says. "The role is so heartfelt and moving. It's a role any dancer would hope to do. The emotional arc gets inside you. Cho-Cho-San is so trusting of Pinkerton. She thinks that she is so special, and doesn't see what's coming at all when Pinkerton abandons her."

Over her eight years with the company, Fote has danced Butterfly with Ian Casady, Simon Ball and Nicholas Leschke, enjoying what each dancer has brought to the role of Pinkerton, the dashing ne'er-do-well who leaves Cho-Cho-San.

"It's wonderful to have a new partner. I develop a different rapport with each partner. They speak to me in their own ways," says Fote, who is now partnered with James Gotesky

 At almost 40, Fote is in her prime — and what's even more amazing, she has never been injured. 

Fote looks back on her time at Houston Ballet as a gift. She already had an established career at the Milwaukee Ballet before arriving here. There was even a time she thought of retiring after leaving Milwaukee, but Houston came into her path and added yet another chapter to her career.

"I've done so many things here," says Fote. "It's been so inspiring to be here. I am pushed every day to do my best, and that I get to do Butterfly again is bittersweet."

At almost 40, Fote is in her prime — and what's even more amazing, she has never been injured. "My body has been good to me, I've treated it well. I have good genes maybe," she adds, modestly.

The ballerina who always left us breathless is ready to confront the big unknown of life beyond dance. She will be missed, by myself and many others. 

"I might be still for a bit," quips Fote. "I promise to let you know. It's a work in progress." Fote is staying open for the calling of the next step in her life. With a bounty of talents and interests, I have no worries. I suspect that she's not done giving her best to the arts.

Fote deepened my dance watching. It's not all about the steps, flash and technique (although Fote has those in spades), but what is held back from the audience, which makes them feel and think for themselves.

While writing a feature story on her career in Dance Magazine, I asked her about her nuanced performances, the way she lets us in to her interior drama. "I want the audience to lean in a little bit," she told me. This fall, they will be leaning in for the last time.

Amy Fote talks about the role of Cho-Cho-San in Madame Butterfly:

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